This article covers the episodes The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People, which together form a single story. Your appreciation of this one will probably depend on what it is that you want from a Doctor Who story. If you like monsters and scares then you can’t really fault it. The Gangers are an effective play on the concept of the uncanny valley, which dictates that distortions of human features are troubling on a fundamental, evolutionary level. Jennifer/Ganger’s stretching mouth is very disturbing, as are the melted but still conscious Gangers. All of this is classic body horror stuff, and is set within a base-under-siege story structure, in a remote location. So as a call back to the Troughton monster era this is an efficient pastiche.
But writer Matthew Graham is trying to do a lot more than that. He is playing with an idea that nearly always gets fudged in Doctor Who: the rebellion of a slave race. We have seen this many times before, in stories such as The Ark and Planet of the Ood, and The Rebel Flesh shares exactly the same problem as those two earlier examples: the narrative conflict between (a) teaching the lesson that slavery is bad, and (b) making the slave race a scary threat. I am sure you can see the problem: you need a monster of the week, and that means the story almost inevitably comes down on the side of the oppressor and paints the oppressed as the villains, while trying to do the exact opposite.
So here we have some thought-provoking material. The name “Ganger” has a double function, not just derived from the work doppelgänger. A ganger was also the head of a gang of labourers on canals or railways, so has historical associations with menial work. Also playing into this is the rights of somebody who is perceived by society as “different”. Because they started life in a vat of goo, does that make the Gangers somehow less valuable as people? The answer to that question should of course be a straightforward “no”, except for the problem that they share somebody’s memories and then you come up against things like the paternal instinct. It’s all very well to accept a clone as a person in their own right, but when that person thinks he has a claim to be another father to your son… well, let’s just say it muddies the waters somewhat.
But there’s only one thing for Graham to do with this, and it is exactly what he attempts to do: come down firmly on the side of the Gangers having an equal right to life as the humans. The key moment in this approach is the cliffhanger between episodes, which sets up the Ganger/Doctor as a threat (the trailer also did this) and then has the entire second episode play out as a twin swap plot, with Ganger/Doctor entirely equivalent to the Doctor in every respect. He’s simply another Doctor.
Then it all goes wrong. Not wrong from the point of view of putting a scary, exciting adventure on screen. Wrong from the point of view of the message being put across. Because a few things happen that completely undermine it all:
- One of the Gangers is an irredeemable monster, willing to kill her own kind, legitimising the humans’ treatment of them with fear and distrust.
- Nobody ends up with a double who survives, whether that double be human or Ganger. Nobody faces the tricky situation of having to return to their lives with somebody who also wants to return to the same life, sharing the same memories. We finish the story with one of each “person”, which is far too convenient and dodges the issues.
- The Doctor spends a whole episode demonstrating how Ganger life is no less valid than human life, and then proceeds to execute Ganger/Amy without a second thought.
So we get an amazing cliffhanger between stories, but one which makes the Doctor seem like somebody who talks a good talk but doesn’t really believe in his own moral values when it comes to the crunch. He doesn’t have the inconvenience of having to coexist with his Ganger, and he deals with the inconvenience of a Ganger Amy in the TARDIS by dissolving her into a puddle. Which returns us to the previous point about the moral dilemma mentioned above: a duplicate who remembers being a father to your child and wants to share your life. If you had a button that would turn that person back into a puddle, what would you do? The paternal/maternal instinct is strong, as is the instinct that is ruling the Doctor’s actions at the point that he dissolves Ganger/Amy: the need to save his best friend. Maybe that’s the lesson the story is really teaching us: it’s easy to take the moral high ground, until a problem affects you on a deeply personal level. RP
The view from across the pond:
Matthew Graham wrote the two-part The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People. Conceptually, we’re in familiar territory with duplicates. The Doctor has dealt with duplicate versions of himself as far back as we can recall. The Daleks created a duplicate as early as The Chase. Hartnell’s Doctor gets another double with The Massacre where Steven thinks the Doctor is killed. Troughton and evil dictator Salamander are duplicates that get into a fight in the TARDIS. Tom Baker’s Doctor is duplicated by a Cactus and Davison’s Doctor has to deal with an evil double courtesy of Omega. Tennant gets a benevolent double and Smith has already had 2 doubles by this point in his run! So there’s very little new in that idea. Having companions who want to help but they’re not sure who to side with is a common trope in science fiction. So is the idea of the Doctor as mediator between two warring parties, only to have things go south when one side draws first blood. Been there, done that! Even waking the Flesh up from a semi-subservient state to full autonomy through electricity… hello Frankenstein. Again, recycled organs… I mean, ideas!
But Graham turns it on its head in one very important way. This duplicate is truly a duplicate, complete with the Doctors entire memory, morality, and personality. We’re talking memory from past incarnations. This opens an incredible line of discussion. It’s one of those episodes that we were talking about weeks later and that’s a good thing; a story that stimulates the mind and sparks off ideas! At a certain point, does it even matter who was the original? Star Trek Voyager had a moment to shine (but dropped the ball) when they attempted something like this in the episodes Demon and its sequel Course: Oblivion. Like the Doctor, they encounter a mimetic liquid. Like Doctor Who, they opened the idea up in episode 92 and don’t come back to it until the 112th episode. That could mean that there were 20 episodes where we were following a “bogus” crew and never knew it, which in turn could have led to countless interesting stories. Instead, the audience was just tuning in for one episode of their lives; it felt like a copout. This was a chance for greatness in an otherwise lackluster Star Trek franchise. And like Star Trek, Doctor Who bungles it later this same year. This was the perfect solution to the Doctor being killed on the beach. And I do mean: PERFECT! (More on that when we come to the finale!)
If you’ve got any sense of philosophy, you have to step back and ask yourself: at some point, how do you know you’re the original? Does it matter? Can you coexist with yourself? If you’re married or have children like Jimmy does, how do you expect the family to accept another version of yourself? Can either one let go to start their own lives? How do you shun the other you when in all ways that is you? The sheer volume of ideas this episode spawned puts it as a highlight story for me. We may be using some standard tropes but we are investigating a fun branch of philosophy and that makes this one exceptional.
Graham put a lot of thought into this story and it shows. The setting is eerie and wonderful. Sarah Smart gives a great performance as the main (misguided) baddie in the episode. The idea of a misunderstanding escalating and causing such terror is wonderfully deep – there is no reason these people should be at odds, yet there would be no story without that! Mark Bonnar as Jimmy is great; this guy has been turning up everywhere and he’s terrific. Marshall Lancaster leaps over from Life on Mars along with the writer, Matthew Graham. The cast does a great job selling a tense story. And some of the special effects for Jennifer (Sarah Smart) are incredibly disturbing.
I can’t say enough about how much I appreciated the thought behind this story. It’s excellent. Since no one seems to want to talk about it with me, I’ve just invited my clone over so we can discuss it. At least he gets why I liked it so much. I’d better answer that, it’s probably him. I mean me… ML
Read next in the Junkyard… A Good Man Goes to War